Nature’s Course: An Interview with John Newsom (Part 1)
December 21, 2022
Posted by Nathalie Martin
Combining realistic representations of animals and vegetation, Abstract Expressionism, and hard-edge geometry, John Newsom’s paintings explore our intricate and complicated relationship with nature. I spoke with John about his origins, his practice, and his upcoming exhibitions – a mid-career retrospective at the Oklahoma Contemporary Museum and a two-person show with Raymond Pettibon in Palm Beach.
NM: I want to start from the beginning. How did you first get into painting and art history?
JN: I was born in Kansas, in the middle of America, in Hutchinson, which is a town outside of Wichita. I lived there for five years and then my family moved to Dodge City, which is kind of mythologized in the American west as this cowboy town, and Jesse James, etc. – it’s kind of a legendary place. So that kind of was a fun place to grow up from five to ten. During those five years in Dodge, I would go to this place called Boot Hill, which is a famous old Western subsidiary town within Dodge City. They had reenactments of old Western-themed plays, skits, narratives, salon girl dancers, and cowboy shootouts. It was wild. It was like the wild west. But it was an all-American childhood. I really am from that place, those early roots. That’s my foundation. Then at ten, my family moved to Oklahoma, and I spent my formative youth there. I was always painting. I was always drawing. I was just naturally engaged with the process from a very early age. I remember being three, four, and five years old and recalling vivid experiences of the process. It was definitely something more organic than normal. It was just in me. So I came to it very naturally and I just always did that. I mean, I did other things too; I played sports and ran around and did all that kind of stuff, but I was always drawing. I was always painting. That’s the early, early beginnings, the seedlings of how things started.
NM: Right. So in high school, when you applied to RISD, you knew you wanted to attend art school, and that painting was something you wanted to seriously pursue?
JN: Well, we got to step back a little bit before that. Again, in the context of where I was from, I didn’t have access to museums or galleries. I was growing up in rural America and it wasn’t the urban setting at all. It was just flat planes and a big, open sky. It was interesting, it was through the early days of MTV that sparked my curiosity. Whenever MTV first began, I can’t remember the exact date, but I remember watching it because it was exciting. It was new. Today, the young kids, they’ve got NFTs, they’ve got the metaverse, they’ve got all this stuff. We had MTV. That was what we had.
NM: I wish I had MTV.
JN: Yeah, man, I want my MTV! I remember I was watching MTV and Duran Duran came on the station and they were talking to this very strange person. I thought he was a new rock star because that’s how we were discovering music. And I love music. Music’s had a big influence on me, on my life and my work (and we can get to some of those things. Not to be long-winded about it, but I do have to lay out some of these stories for context). So I was watching Duran Duran interview this artist, and I thought, this guy has to be from London. I’m around 13, I think, when I’m watching this, like, oh man, I can’t wait to hear this guy’s music. And then they said that he was a painter! Then I really was like whoa, what? A painter? No way. I wanted to see his paintings. And it was Andy Warhol.
JN: So I was watching this interview with Warhol and I was really interested in his persona and how he was coming across as someone who could get on MTV as a painter. That was it. That was interesting to me because it was usually Duran Duran, ZZ Top, Def Leppard, you know, stuff like that. It wasn’t painting.
So my mother would drive me and my younger brother to the local library once every other week to check out books. I went to the librarian and I inquired to see if they had any information at all about Andy Warhol. And again, this is Enid, Oklahoma, a town an hour north of Oklahoma City, just south of the Kansas border. The odds of finding any information on Andy Warhol out there were slim to nil. So she came back with a book and it was a new book, a recent anthology on American Pop Art. And they had a little chapter on Warhol. So I checked out the book and I voraciously read it several times and looked at all the pictures, front to back cover. Through that I discovered the world of New York Pop Art – Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Leo Castelli. I learned the story of the Stable Gallery where Warhol first started exhibiting before he joined Castelli. Leo had picked up Lichtenstein shortly before looking at two early Dick Tracy paintings of Warhol’s – that could get us down a whole other hole.
But anyway, I’m 13, I’m reading all this stuff. Very interested in it, I started drawing images of rock stars and sports figures and artists, things that I’m interested in. I had this kind of double-edge play, this double edge vision at work. One was kind of this Pop vernacular, and the other was just trying to learn the fundamentals of drawing from a more kind of academy style.
But again, where I was, I was restrained, because I didn’t have access to the knowledge, to really get it. And you really need, when you’re drawing, or when you’re doing form like that at any time, whether it’s hockey or painting or golf or whatever, you must have a live physical instructor to show you. You have to figure it out live. You can’t do that kind of knowledge via a book and have it be as effective. So I just kind of paralleled off into my own world.
Combining realistic representations of animals and vegetation, Abstract Expressionism, and hard-edge geometry, John Newsom’s paintings explore our intricate and complicated relationship with nature. I spoke with John about his origins, his practice, and his upcoming exhibitions – a mid-career retrospective at the Oklahoma Contemporary Museum and a two-person show with Raymond Pettibon in Palm Beach.
JN: I grew up in a very solid family structure and being very close with my family. I have a family now and I just love family. I’m crazy about my family. So a strange thing happened on my 14th birthday. I thought that everybody had forgotten my birthday. Like everybody was playing dumb, they didn’t acknowledge it. And it freaked me out. It was a problem.
I went up to my room and was just kind of sad about it. It was on a Saturday. My Dad came up, and he peeked in and he said, “Hey, you want to drive downtown and get a Coke?” I said okay. And so we drove downtown. It was a beautiful sunny day. It was like a Norman Rockwell painting. We went into this soda stand and got Coke floats. We were talking about baseball and things like that. And then he said, “do you want to take a drive to Oklahoma City?” And I was like, yeah, sure, why not? I mean, that wasn’t totally out of the ordinary, but it was cool that he said that. But still no mention of the birthday.
So my dad and I drove to Oklahoma City. And at the time – this was before the ages of heightened security and terrorist alerts and all that – you could literally drive up to the tarmac of the landing pad at the airport, which is what we did. There was a small commuter plane waiting for us on the tarmac. I mean, it wasn’t a private jet or anything like that. It was just a small plane, which was cool. My dad looked at me and he said, “Hey, you want to take a plane ride?” Now this had never happened before. This was different. But he got up, we got on the plane and I was excited. I was just thrilled. This was an adventure.
We took off, I didn’t know where we were going. We were up in the air for a little over an hour, I’d say an hour and a half. We started making our descent and I look over and there are buildings around. We’re landing in a city. The plane lands, and we get out and there’s a car waiting for us. Not with a driver or anything fancy. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it was everything to me. This was the moment. My dad’s like, “Hey, you want to take a drive and see where we’re at?” It was amazing how he laid this out. So we get in the car and we start looping around and we are in heavy urban traffic and it’s going fast. It’s moving. It’s not stalled. It’s not like being in LA during rush hour. It’s fast-moving and we zoom off the freeway and I’m just wide-eyed looking out the window. The car stops. I look over at my dad and he puts his arm around me. He looks at me and he goes, “Happy Birthday.” Oh my God. And I look out the window and it says the Dallas Museum of Art. I blew open the door. There was a sidewalk, a long sidewalk between the car and the front door. And I just started running down the sidewalk, and there’s this giant leaning wall of steel on the left side of the sidewalk. And later in life, I would tell Richard Serra this story – I literally did that, Nathalie. I told him this story. I actually got him to smile. It was its own achievement, but that’s for another time.
NM: I’m smiling just hearing this.
JN: Yeah, man. But I didn’t know what it was at the time. I had no idea. All I could do was read the sign, Dallas Museum of Art. I run to the door. I walk in and I didn’t need to do check-in right away or any of that stuff – again, I was just 14 that day. So my dad was going to handle it. Because – because – installed right in front of me on the main wall was Robert Rauschenberg’s largest Combine Painting, Skyway, from 1964. And I just had an epiphany. John F. Kennedy was pointing down at me and I just saw my life flash before my eyes. I heard the calling. I was like, I’m going to be a painter. For real, for real, I’m going to go all the way with this, whatever that means.
NM: Yeah, you flipped the switch.
JN: I really didn’t know what that meant, but I knew that it was happening. I knew this is what I wanted to do. So that was real, the real root of it. We had a great time. My dad came in, bless his heart, he didn’t know what was going on. He didn’t know what he was looking at.
NM: I have the same experience with my dad to this day. He always asks me to explain it to him, what does this mean, what am I looking at, you know, and I’m like, Dad, that’s beside the point.
JN: Right, he didn’t know, but thank God I had supportive, loving parents because they passed it on to me and I support my children like that. That’s a healthy chain of events, so that’s very cool beyond this discussion. So he walked in and he said, can you explain this to me? And I start talking about collage and painting, and there’s a giant Claes Oldenburg rope, anchor sculpture thing that’s extending from the ceiling down to the floor. There was a Jim Dine painting that has collaged tools in it, spray-painted elements, and just all this radical stuff. It was a radical presentation of Pop Art. It wasn’t so smooth. Even the Lichtenstein – it was the painted ceramic female bust. It wasn’t a domestic item. It was romantic, it was interesting, it was great. It was colorful. It was very tactile. I loved it.
But the Rauschenberg was the win for me that day. It really was, and I was kind of veering off the initial discovery of this whole thing via Warhol. I mean, I still love it. I admire it. I never got to meet him, but I hold his work in reverence. But just through self-discovery in life and your own painting practice, you come into your own. So I was, even then, veering away into other things, but I still was hoping to see a piece because I had never seen a Warhol in the flesh. But it wasn’t in the main gallery. So we walked through all this stuff, and before we left, I asked the person at the front desk where the restrooms were. I go to the restrooms, and there in between the restroom doors were two Warhol electric chair paintings. I was like, there they are! There they are. For some reason, they didn’t hang them in the main gallery. But if I hadn’t asked to go to the bathroom, I would’ve never seen the Warhol paintings. So I got to see them. They were really cool because those were some really edgy pieces. The electric chair series is just so intense, and I’ve seen thousands of Warhol paintings since then, but those are some of the best.
The Dallas Museum of Art is amazing. I saw a Philip Guston retrospective there. It’s a great space. I came back to Enid, the small town where I was from in Oklahoma, and my life would never be the same. I started taking pieces of found wood and plywood panels and I would staple TV dinner trays to the pieces of wood and throw paint all over them and take them into my art class, present them as art, and everyone thought I was crazy. Because that’s what I really wanted to be doing. But on the other hand, I was trying to draw as realistic as possible because that’s what everybody was getting off on. It was like, wow this guy can draw like the wind, it’s amazing, it looks like a photograph – but then I’m doing this crazy, really tactile, abject painting. I was just getting into it, you know, I had all this passion, but not really much direction. I was swirling and I continued to swirl for the next two years, which was good. It was all build up. I was still going to the library in my teenage years and I discovered an area of magazines that they had. I wondered if they had a magazine for art. So I asked the librarian about it and sure enough they carried ARTnews magazine.
I got a copy of ARTnews… and it was a still a little early, maybe late 13, 14 years old. I got back from Dallas and I was like, I gotta keep figuring this out, and we didn’t have Google. So I found ARTnews and I started reading it and I waited and anticipated when the library would get the new issue. I would look at the ads and I would read the reviews and articles and I’d discover artists. That was my junior high school into high school education of art. I knew what the galleries were showing in New York when I was 14, 15 growing up in Oklahoma. And honestly, Nathalie, I couldn’t wait to get there, because we had taken a family trip to New York around that time as well. I told my mother, I said, “this is where I’m going to live.” She was like, oh John, okay, whatever, and I’m like, no – mark my words. I’m going to do this. I’m a Taurus. So once I set my mind to it, it’s happening.
JN: So I found an ad in the back of ARTnews. It was a quarter-page ad for a summer camp called Interlochen in Northern Michigan, outside of Traverse City. It was advertised as a music camp, and I thought that was interesting, but I also read that they had painting. It was music, dance, and painting. It was basically an art preparatory school but a summer camp, and everybody was going to camp, including myself. I’d gone to baseball camp and church camp, but I didn’t want to go to those camps. I wanted to go to art camp. So I asked my parents, I showed them the ad and I said, “Hey, what do you think about this? This sounds really amazing. Can I apply?” Everybody was going to camp, so they were like, “well let’s see.” We looked into it and long story short, I got to go to the summer camp Interlochen.
That was kind of another pivotal point in this process because I just fell in love with it. It was just fantastic because there were instructors there, it was serious. It was life-drawing and still-life drawing and blind contour drawing and printmaking and introduction to woodcutting and intaglio etching. It’s all that stuff, you know, the classics. It was the academy. So while I was there, I discovered that they did offer the academy during the school year. I couldn’t go back home. I thought, how am I going to get to New York if I don’t do this? I don’t know how, but this is part of my journey. So I went, I left in the middle of high school to go to Interlochen Arts Academy. I got in and I worked really hard and I loved it. And it was just everything. It was –
NM: Where you needed to be.
JN: Nathalie, it was just everything. It was just amazing. I dove into art history and the hardcore academics of art-making and the instructors were incredible. They were also interested in regional exhibitions that were happening in places like the Detroit Museum and Cranbrook and we would take trips there. I remember going to the Detroit Museum one time and they had a giant Rosenquist painting. I think maybe it’s where I grew up because I did grow up with a horizontal landscape, whereas my kids are growing up with a vertical landscape because they live in the city. It’s just a different site point, it really is. Day after day you get accustomed to it. So there really was an expansive field to the things, or paintings, physically, that I was attracted to. Just the scale of it. They’re like grand spaces you can walk in. If you get far back enough, it becomes another picture, you get close, it becomes an incredible physical reality. It’s just an amazing thing. So Rosenquist, how he was using aspects of visual collage was really interesting to me, especially the idea of remixing – again, revisiting notions of MTV and early days of Hip Hop. Even like certain types of rhythmic or electric guitars, metal, Kraftwerk, anything, listening to all this stuff. I’m thinking, like –
NM: Thinking what is going on!
JN: Yeah! Thinking that this is our time. This is now, it can’t be like the Italian Renaissance. It’s different, but you got to go and learn all that stuff. You asked me in the beginning about school and things like that. I really felt obligated to go in and learn as much as I could and just figure out the etymology of what it was I was getting involved with. And I love it to this day, I love just sitting down and getting into it like that. Doesn’t have to be about my own work. It can be about ideas of artistic thought and movement and other things. You know what I mean?
NM: Absolutely, I totally agree.
JN: So that was a really great period of work and development for me. And then the time came to leave and I applied to The Rhode Island School of Design and Cooper Union, and I got into both, but I decided to go to The Rhode Island School of Design. I applied there first, I got into Cooper after RISD and I just thought it would be a little buffer before New York, let’s put it that way. Being a late teenager, New York might’ve been a little much, but I knew I was going to be there eventually anyway, so it didn’t matter. So I went to Providence. It’s a gorgeous city. It’s a very, very European city. I felt a little stunted to be honest, the first two years there, and I came very close to transferring to Cooper Union.
NM: And you were in the painting program at RISD?
JN: Yeah, I was in the painting program. I was just ready to get to New York, but I still wanted to be in school. It just wasn’t time yet. But then I started to meet some people. I started to make some real friendships and I stayed there. I didn’t go. I finished at RISD and then I came to New York in 1992. So I’ve been here 30 years now. Then we get into New York itself, but I mean, we just covered a large swath of my history from the beginning to New York. Those are key points, the highlights.
Nathalie Martin: It’s also interesting that your first encounter with art was through Rauschenberg and Warhol and kind of all the guys that sought to “break the rules,” then going to school and studying the rules yourself, is a really unique way to get into it or to get into the history.
John Newsom: Yeah, definitely. Definitely, because there’s a generation in between. If you look at it really by decades and things, there was a generation in between there that was such an incredible, momentous time for painting in the eighties. So the Pop Art that I was really looking at, it came earlier, when we were moving out of Abstract Expressionism into Pop. Like real early Pop into middle Pop. That was a really interesting period, but it was also a very popular period. So that’s why I was able to get access to it in rural Oklahoma because I couldn’t get to some of the things that were happening in the European context, or even the Far East, which I eventually made it to. I studied abroad and lived in Kyoto. I was in Yokohama, Osaka, Tokyo, and then I was down in Mexico City for a while, around San Miguel and Palenque. So I traveled a lot. I was very interested in broadening my knowledge. I wanted to get the knowledge. And so it wasn’t exclusively linear like with the New York context. But for me, it’s always been about the journey.
I’ve done a lot of exhibitions in Los Angeles. I’ve had good experiences in LA. I’ve always been based in New York and coming up I never had the dream of going to Los Angeles. I always knew I wanted to get to New York and it’s a different place to paint here. It’s just a little different than it is in LA. And it’s not to make a value judgment. It’s just to say that it’s a different type of context to be painting in. I think that’s benefited my particular type of work again because of the tactility of the surface. That’s kind of a uniquely New York historical way of approaching the canvas. If you look at my work, for the most part, the works are rather large in scale and they’re also very tactical. They’re tough, they’re heavy, and they’re physical paintings. So I always found it kind of a nice juxtaposition when I would go to Los Angeles and see friends and artists out there and shows where it became about light and space. It was all about light and space and atmosphere and it was amazing. It was a trip, but then I get back here and it was like we’re back in this earthen realm of the physical, up-in-your grill surface structures. I love that because I feel like paintings are made as much as they are painted. I mean, there’s the idea of the mark.
NM: I agree and see that in your own work.
JN: There’s a certain attribute about mark-making in New York that is different than anywhere else, and I love it. That’s why I continue to be encouraged by the energy of it. I was talking with the painter Ed Moses about this one time, and he was an interesting painter because although he was in Los Angeles, he was a very physical type of painter. His surfaces were very physically driven. So if he had stayed in New York, he would’ve had a very different history. And if a painter like Brice Marden had gone to Los Angeles, with his type of work, those Cold Mountain paintings would have a totally different feel to them. I just think it’s interesting to really take note of the context of where it is you are painting in a landscape. Corot was painting in a certain landscape, Turner was painting in a certain landscape, Van Gogh too, and it’s just all this kind of stuff. So it’s really fascinating. I am so blessed and grateful to be able to have the opportunity to get up every day and go to the studio and do what I do.
NM: Where is your studio?
JN: My studio right now is located at Mana Contemporary. So I’m actually in Jersey City. But my studio was in Soho previously for twenty years. That was the right amount of time to be in Soho. I’m glad I was in Soho when it was like that. Especially in the nineties, because coming into Soho in 92, we got the backwash of what was there, but there was enough. From 92 to 95, it was still jamming. There were still unbelievable, pivotal types of presentations happening with exhibitions there and these artists and it was amazing. It was amazing. Things shifted, which is okay.
NM: As they do.
JN: Yeah, the city doesn’t go anywhere, you just get offered different options, but being there at that time was just incredible to come in on that period, you know? So listen, every generation comes in on their own time
NM: That’s what I tell myself at least.
JN: Yeah, for sure. So I was planning a move of studios and my wife and I found out we were pregnant with our first child and we had been living in Soho prior to having kids. So we moved to Brooklyn and we live in Park Slope. I decided to move my studio, and through a chain of associations I was offered to take a look at the current space, and I built it out. I really like it. I’ve been at the current studio maybe six, seven years, something like that. It’s a long commute, but I’m glad I have it. I walk, I take the trains. I love living in a walking city. As a painter, I love it. That’s another reason why I could never be in LA. There was an apartment I had access to for four years through the gallery I was with in LA and I’d stay there and I’d either get a car or have a driver or some way to get around, but I never really drove. You get to run into people here. You want to have experiences. You feel a part of the city, you feel closer to it. So I walk, I take the trains. I don’t go to the gym, but I go to the studio. It helps you a little bit. But it’s all good. Everything’s good. Everything’s in a real good space. So yeah, totally. I’m happy.
NM: Good. I want to talk about your influences too. Your fauna definitely reminds me of Audubon and your backdrops remind me of Pollock or Mitchell, and your flora reminds me of Kahlo even.
JN: Well, I love all those artists you’re mentioning. It’s really important to do two things. It’s really important to address your influences, to work with and through your influences. You have to do that, but you have to literally work through your influences until it’s digested fully and it’s yours now.
NM: Absolutely, so you’re not just regurgitating.
JN: You have to do that. I mean, the Greats study the Greats in order to be great. You have to do that in anything, in music, sports, entertainment, in writing. Again, because I kind of started out early, I got to go through a lot, and quickly. I gathered a lot, I went through a lot. When I say a lot, it wasn’t like I was looking at a dozen artists. I was looking at hundreds of artists. Really, hundreds of artists, trying to see what it was all about. And there are many, many false starts. You’re not going to hit it out of the park every time. There’s going to be a lot of strikes, and you have to embrace it. Sometimes it’s like, “This is interesting, but it’s kind of a dead-end,” and so now I’m going to go over here and, “Oh, wow, this is happening.” But you have to keep an open mind, always have to keep an open mind. You never know where it’s going to come from, where that spark is going to be. So you’re mentioning artists like Audubon to Joan Mitchell, which is interesting. Who the hell is thinking of that together? You know what I mean? You make an interesting point because it’s like, “I want it all.” Going back to Rauschenberg, when you look at Skyway, it’s like he was cramming everything he could into every square inch of that painting. That’s what I love about Rauschenberg and certain other artists that I’ll get into – the level of generosity. I just love when I walk into a show, wherever it is, I’m like, “Oh, wow. Whoa.” You know, it’s just, “Oh my God, look at this!” So if I’m flipping through Artforum or whatever, I see an announcement for an exhibition by a certain artist, then it’s like, “Oh shit! I can’t wait to see this!”
NM: Me too! And when it hits, it hits.
JN: Oh man, when it delivers? Because it might not deliver. But when it delivers, you know, it’s like watching Pacino in a film or something…. and it delivers! You walk in and you’re like, “Wow, this is it!” It didn’t happen overnight. Paintings don’t make themselves. You’ve got to get up, get your coffee, get in the studio, grind, flow – however it gets done – and you have to paint every day. This reminds me of a quote by Alex Katz that I’ve always loved. I really admire Alex Katz. He’s amazing. And he said, “Go to the studio, paint 10 hours a day every day for 10 years, and then come see me.” And that’s just such a pretentious, badass, New York quote. That’s just awesome. So that’s what I did. I painted 10 hours a day for 10 years. And then I went to see him. He gave me a drawing of his wife Ada reclining on the beach, and my wife has it hanging in our bedroom and it’s signed: To John, Love Alex. So I took his advice and if you’re a painter like that, I’m giving you Alex Katz’s advice, because it was really good advice. Just get in there and grind, and that’s really it. You’re also going to find out a lot about yourself and if you’re cut out for this, because not everybody is built for this nor should they be. It’s just following your own bliss, figuring out what that means, and what’s that about.
So I can get into influences. Certainly, there have been many, many, many, and I gotta tell you, it’s at a point now where it’s become self-referential in the work. And that’s a strange thing to say. It’s not completely self-referential, but it’s to the degree that… like, the Jasper Johns show just closed at the Whitney, and it’s been a very busy time for me and I didn’t get to see it.
NM: What! No way.
JN: No, no, no, but it’s fine. I’m not stressed about not seeing it because I’ve seen other Johns’ shows. He’s a great painter, but I’m at the point where I can’t see anything right now because I’ve got to be on my shit. But it hasn’t always been like that. There was a point earlier where I would have made sure to see a show like that because I needed to see it. Or I had to see it or whatever, but you know what, I’ve seen iterations of it. I hope I’m getting this across because it’s an exciting place to be at. It’s like, wow, I finally have so much on my plate with my own painting that I actually can’t go see this stuff, but it’s okay. Because I know it, I know what it is. I’ve really enjoyed sharing these stories with you because it’s a time to look back. It’s a time to take a moment of self-reflection and to look back and to take stock and see what things have happened, what paintings exist now that are particularly important and strong in my own lineage, and then see where I’m going with it. Then I’ll have a period that opens up where I can exhale and go see something, and then you see what happens. It’s interesting, things that you would have never imagined you would’ve been into at a certain period, you’re obsessed with, you know what I mean?
NM: Totally. Some of my favorite painters now are artists I originally didn’t understand or like.
JN: And then vice versa, you know, you’ve got to be like that. You can’t just stay on one thing. If you’re on a type of painting or an artist as an influence, and you’re looking at it and you know it back and forth, it doesn’t mean you have to stay on it forever. You can set it down and you can evolve into other things, knowing that it was there. It is there. But you don’t have to feel obligated to take it with you everywhere. Not that you should either, because the most important thing is to find your own voice as a painter. You have to work through your influences. You look at Velazquez or Caravaggio or late Manet – this is capital “P” Painting, and you have to get through that stuff. You have to go to the Prado and see Spanish painting, you have to see the Louvre and the French painting. You’ve got to do all that stuff. I was told that when I was young, and I’ve been to those places. So you get into a certain moment in your development and then you process it, and it gets better. It just keeps getting better, and you get wiser too, just by doing the work. Because the work leads the way.
John Newsom: So I want to go back just for a second to some of the references you made. It’s interesting because it’s a plethora of artists that you’ve mentioned, and those cornerstones are in the work, but they’re kind of existing simultaneously, and I’m just going to make a quick observation on something there that goes back to the idea of collage. Collage is so central, I think, to the language of painting in general in the last 50 to 60 years. Collage is the most important development of painting in the 20th century. It didn’t occur before that period. Collage was new. Collage was very, very important. So you look at painters like Picabia, Rosenquist, David Salle. These are really great painters. But if you study their surface structures and you see how the pictorial elements are arranged in relationship to collage, for the most part, you’re going to find the kind of break in the images within the canvas. Whereas in my work, I was kind of always attached to the overall picture plane. I mentioned Marden earlier. That’s one painter I really admire, just the overall sense of the big picture. You know what I mean?
Nathalie Martin: Yes, generous with every inch of the canvas.
JN: So in my work, you’re going to see that fragmentation happen in layers. Like when you’re making a bed – the sheets to the blankets, it’s all tucked in, but it’s over one complete surface. So that’s why when you’re reading it – and you mentioned Mitchell or Pollock, Pollock more so – but for the most part, it’s like, that’s the modern picture. That’s the overall picture. And then you mentioned somebody like Audubon or Kahlo or something. I understand it, but I’m not really conscious of those painters when I’m working. You look at them because my work does have a pastoral side to it. That’s what I think you’re seeing, this pastoral element, but it’s happening across the entire surface of the painting. Then there’s this hard-edge geometry that acts as a foundational structure in some of the backgrounds. If you’re listening to this and you’re with one of my paintings, if you’ve noticed, more times than not, the backgrounds and the elements within it will be painted last. You can’t see that in a reproduction. If it’s a reproduction that you’re looking at, you’re not going to get that. You have to see it live, to see the paint in the flesh. And that goes back to another important aspect that is intrinsic to the experience of viewing a painting. It has to be done in the flesh; you cannot read a painting over a screen. That’s why painting will always remain autonomous, because the lived experience is so important. It’s like an opera. You gotta go see it. It will always be like that. There’s no way to make that transference, and I have a lot of friends who are involved in new conceptual mediums, which is fantastic. It’s interesting. My son loves this kind of new tech stuff, but it’s not painting. So don’t say it is.
NM: That’s what I say, call it what you want, but it’s not painting.
JN: But it’s not a big deal. There are artists who are using painting to expand other conceptual ideas, and it’s super cool, but painting is paint. That’s why it’s called painting. So look for the paint. I don’t want to dwell on that because it’s ridiculous to. What I want to say is when you’re with one of my paintings, check out what happens around the edges of the forms. When I go to The Met here in New York, I’m looking at how something is painted. I get up on a Manet or a still-life, and all of a sudden you start realizing what’s happening within the brushstrokes, the touch and the medium, the form of what’s happening. What’s positive is negative and what’s negative is positive. Then you see an articulation of space occurring, and now you’re getting into the language of form and you’re getting into the articulation of how these things work in space. So that’s something I wanted to give a focus to, because the way the fragmentation, or these kind of collage aspects that happen within my work, it’s all over. It’s not contingent within a certain area of the painting, you know? I think that’s an interesting part of my work.
I’m not obsessed with making a “new” type of painting, but I am interested in presenting what my interests are to develop a painting that’s intrinsically and closely tied to that individual vision as much as possible. Because if I’m doing that, it’s going to be new. Somebody asked Jay-Z who’s the greatest rapper of all time. Jay-Z said Biggie Smalls because he was the one that could tell his story in the realest way. That means the clearest way. That’s what that means. I think if you look at a Morandi painting, and you’re looking at those bottles, it’s like, they’re just bottles. But it’s magical because it’s Morandi. It’s like the articulation is so there, that it’s inescapable, and you become transfixed on those bottles and those paintings just because he was so in tune with it.
So that’s what I’m trying to get to. I’ve laid out a little bit of my influences and my early foundation experience and all that. It’s very American. I feel like for lack of a better word, it actually does have a quality of “Americanness” to it. One of my good friends, the German painter André Butzer, who I’ve known for a long time, he’s an incredible painter. I highly admire his work ethic. We kind of came up together, showed together. I really respect him, and there’s the Germanic quality to his work. He moved to California and he was living in Altadena for awhile. He’s interested in aspects of American life and he let that into his work. So his work has kind of a different type of feel to it. This is interesting because, for me, I’m a big fan of German painting. So when you’re mentioning people like Pollock and Mitchell – yes, they’re great, but I also look at people like Markus Lüpertz, he’s just an incredible painter, and more obvious references like Kiefer and Baselitz, things like that of the eighties. Big, fantastic paintings. But I’m not German! So sometimes you got to lay down Thor’s hammer and be like, “No. That one isn’t for me, I got to pick up this new thing.” You just have to embrace what it is you’re about, and really try to do that. If I had to give advice to a younger painter, that would be it. Keep doing, keep exploring. Keep making trials and errors and get to a point where you’re getting closer to your original voice, and then just “BOOM!” From the mountaintop, scream what it is, you know? That’s kind of how it has to be.
Nathalie Martin: So I was talking to my friend, a young painter who’s in the studio all day and has an incredible work ethic. But he’s always so hung up about originality or making the most original thing. And I always tell him that maybe originality isn’t the goal. Maybe you’re working towards a certain goal or idea and then your voice or that originality just comes, almost like a symptom or byproduct of whatever you’re working towards. Just not being so fixated with making the most “original” thing. You mentioned Morandi – people have painted cups before. But he makes it totally his own.
John Newsom: Well I would say your friend is looking outside of themselves. What they have to do is turn that vision inward and it’ll be new. It’ll be new because they’ll be discovering themselves for the first time. Everybody, honestly, has a unique spark within them. This is what I’m saying, Nathalie. You got to bring it all in, in, in, but then you’ve got to let it go, go, go. You have to get rid of it all. That’s why you have to learn everything to unlearn everything. If that makes sense. I really mean that. You have to go out there and just learn and take in as much as possible, and then edit it down to get rid of it all. Then you’re going to be at a place that is totally new. You’re going to have an option if you’re a painter in the painting context, because your friend may discover that they can do what they need to do, but they have to do it training dolphins or something. But anyway, I do think that is something that particularly young artists struggle with. I think it’s a healthy thing. You have to be diligent about it. The cream always rises to the top, it always does. So then you go with that, whatever that is, whatever that means. I actually just finished a nine by eighteen-foot canvas that’s going to debut in the museum show in March.
NM: Your retrospective? Tell me about that.
JN: Yeah, I have a mid-career retrospective, and I’ve been struggling with even saying that phrase because it’s so freaky to say out loud. But I do have a mid-career retrospective opening on March 24th at the new Oklahoma Contemporary Museum, which obviously is very meaningful because that’s the region I’m from, but it also happens to be an extraordinary building and staff. The programming is exceptional. Ed Ruscha just had a full-scale retrospective at the museum, and I’m very honored to be following him. The programming that’s coming up is very, very dynamic and international. This exhibition has been a few years in the planning. We started it before the pandemic. Fortunately, my dates landed a little bit afterwards. It’s going to be comprised of 31 large-scale paintings from the past 20 years. The majority of works are coming in from private collections all over the United States. We decided to keep the show within national borders at the time because of COVID restrictions and shipping. There were some works abroad I would ideally liked to have brought in, but it’s okay. We were able to get the show to a hundred percent with what we have and it’s going to be outstanding. I’m excited about it. They chose the paintings and I felt like I needed to make one to debut at the show.
I jumped into this painting. I was sitting with a friend of mine, watching a horse race on television. I was talking with my friend about the race because he’s into it, I’m not into it, but it just happened to be on the screen. He said that it was the races at Longchamp. I was like, oh yeah, like the Manet painting, because that was the first time a painter had painted a painting like that, from the perspective of seeing the racers and the horses directly coming right at you. Until then the scene was always presented from the side. So that sparked an idea in my mind. Now I’ve got the title. The title of the exhibition at the museum is Nature’s Course, which I feel I just
walked the entirety of in the last hour talking to you, which is amazing. It’s a herd of five charging bison with a flock of eagles soaring above this open sky. It’s the great Mid-western Plains.
NM: I was just going to say, there’s the Kansas and Oklahoma coming back right back in.
JN: Yeah, exactly. But Nathalie, there’s no way I would have thought I would be painting this painting five years ago, ten years ago, twenty, thirty years ago. How insane? But it might be my strongest painting to date. We’ll see. I mean, a few people that have seen previews of it, I’ve been really pleased with the reaction. So I’m very excited about this. It’s going to open on March 24th and run through August 15th.
NM: So the show is called Nature’s Course. Obviously, your work deals with our complex relationship with nature. And I think you have this visual language or this mark-making style that kind of exists between abstraction and figuration, or soft and fierce, or the beautiful and the terrifying or menacing. Are these binaries representations of how you view this relationship?
JN: Yeah, there’s definitely a duality in the work. But I just feel like it needs to be there because it’s got to be there. The language is such that it incorporates a wide variety of applique and thought, but there are parameters on that. Meaning there are specifications to it. You know, there are rules, for lack of a better word. That’s not to say that you can’t break the rules. It’s just to acknowledge that there are rules and those are for the most part of my own making at this point, because it goes back to early on. You try to learn and get on something more organic, you just got to figure out what’s working and what’s not working. Where the energy is right. You go in the direction of the good energy. Even if it’s a painting that is made during a challenging period of one’s life. The tableau of the canvas can absorb the hit of any energy that you bring to it. That’s the magic of it. It’s just kind of a tremendous thing. And then it exists in the painting, it becomes manifested. So whatever it is, if it’s a Goya painting of a certain theme, you can see where his energy was. It’s now transferred into the canvas – it’s in the picture. When I say you get good energy, I mean that you worked through whatever energy it is and then you hopefully will feel better. This is about healing. I think ultimately great painting is about healing. Whether it’s yourself or the viewer – and it’s really important to note that a painting doesn’t exist unless it’s got eyes in front of it.
NM: I always say this!
JN: This is really interesting because I don’t paint the human figure, I paint an allegorical representation of the human figure. The physical reality of a human figure doesn’t appear in my work. It appears through the observer of the work. I’m very conscious of that. The viewer completes the picture. Because if they’re not there, the painting doesn’t exist. It’s like if the tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? It’s a little existential, but it makes sense. So when people say, “Oh, why don’t you paint the figure?” I’m like, “You’re the figure, you’re right there!”
But to get back to the questions, I paint in allegorical terms. There are kind of two ways to read one of my paintings. One is in the literal sense, of whatever flora and fauna or expression of manner you may find within the painting, and then the other is what’s its meaning, what’s its allegory, what’s its allusion. What is it alluding to? Then that gets interesting. It gets complex. Sometimes I make that definition a little bit more reachable, but sometimes I put it out of reach because I want to give people a mystery. That’s something that I think is really important and I think is missing in a lot of today’s art. Everybody is so engaged in meaning, or getting this or that point across. It’s like, I don’t need to know! And so what I want to do is give you both. You can get this or that, or you can leave it there. It doesn’t matter. You know what I mean?
So Nature’s Course is the idea that it’s going to be what it’s going to be. And that’s what it is. You take your time with the paintings because you have to sit with paintings. People are scrolling through Instagram and their attention spans are like goldfish, just like boom, boom, gone. Painting is the opposite of Instagram. You have to sit with a painting and you have to read it like a book, but it’s visual, you know.
NM: I think learning how to see a painting is really like learning how to read again.
JN: You just said it, learning how to see again. It’s just a different process. Myself and others have had the potential to fall in love with that process, you know, and I’m certainly in love with that process.
NM: So you have a two-person exhibition with Raymond Pettibon coming up as well, opening March 15th at County Gallery in Palm Beach. How does that differ from the retrospective or the idea of Nature’s Course? Does it differ?
JN: I’m very excited about that. Yeah, well, the title of, and the theme of that exhibition, is the five classical elements: fire, air, water, earth, and aether. So Raymond and I each made five new works for the show. There will be 10 pieces in all – my five versions of the classical elements and Raymond’s five versions of the classical elements. I’m really excited about it because just thematically speaking, it’s such a tried and true iconography of art. It goes back to the beginning of it all and everything in between. It was a fascinating project to work on. Having it open simultaneously with the museum show is just perfect. Raymond and I formed a friendship over the bond between our two sons. Our sons are good friends, so it was through them that we started our friendship and discussions and I really just admire Raymond. But you know what? It was through nature’s course itself – through the boys playing around, swimming, making little films, and going on excursions like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Those two are just like dynamite. It’s just great.
COUNTY is a young gallery, a very good gallery in Palm Beach. They approached me and Raymond with the idea of doing the show and we had some really healthy discussions, landed on this and I couldn’t be more pleased with how the process has unfolded and the staff at COUNTY. I’m really looking forward to both exhibitions.
NM: That’s incredible, it sounds seamless. So what keeps you painting? What inspires you?
Is it your family? Is it this internal drive? Is it outside influences?
JN: Well, it’s all of the above and more, you know, at this point – you know what, it goes back to the beginning, it’s just the same, Nathalie. It’s just that life itself brings to it what it needs to be. You know, whether it’s something I feel, observe, or experience, I put it into the paintings. And this goes back again to the idea of generosity. I want to serve up a very full meal. I want to make it a big plentiful meal, and I’m just always cooking.
NM: Always in the kitchen.
JN: I’m always in the kitchen, yes, I’m always in the kitchen. You find me in the studio or with my kids, that’s it. That’s my world.
NM: And they’re the same, probably, as far as the return you’re getting.
JN: Yeah, but you know what, that brings us back to the very beginning of our conversation, even before we hopped on the recording. I used to be incredibly social when I was younger. I was out at a thousand openings. I never slept, I was working, I was going to parties. It was exhausting. Just exhausting. It was amazing. I’m glad I lived through it, to be honest, now I’m eight years sober, I’m a sober guy. And life is golden. I don’t regret anything. But I’m glad I lived through it to get to where I am now because it’s really good right now. It wasn’t always about this balance. It was like being tied to the mast heading out to rough seas, but I learned a lot and I have a lot to be thankful for.
NM: I think that directly relates to how you work and your practice. You’re gonna go where you go or shit’s going to come from you and happen to you, but you just got to work through it. You constantly have to work through it, whether it’s painting or life –
JN: Thus, nature’s course.
NM: Nature’s course. Exactly.